Monday, May 21, 2012

Amateur Producer, Professional Taste

One of the benefits of getting involved in the world of wine is that it always seems to give us something to talk about with new people we meet. Tina recently discovered a coworker makes his own wine when he shared a bottle with us at the holidays. We were not expecting the high quality we found in the Cabernet Sauvignon, and were intrigued by the idea of making wine, what it entails, and the rewards and benefits. So, we reached out to William Pokluda, from Split Rock Winery, with a few questions about his process.

1) How did you get started? Did you take any classes to learn how to make wine?
Fall of 2005 was the first grape growing season I made wine. My wife is from Portugal, and her family still maintains strong roots to their home country, including making homemade wine. One day at the dinner table, they asked me to try my hand at it. They described the process as being extremely simple and easy.
Being analytical, I needed to research first. I came across a great book titled From Vines to Wines: The Complete Guide to Growing Grapes and Making Your Own Wine by Jeff Cox. I basically read the wine making chapters several times months in advance of making my first batch of wine. I used Syrah grapes, but never did the proper testing early on, so the wine came out flat, very little texture. Acidity was very low. By the time I figured it out, it was too late to treat it.
Several years later I took a one-day class through M&M Wine Grape Co. in Hartford, CT. Robert Herold, an expert winemaker and consultant to grape growers, taught the class. I basically received an overview of the process along with a printed booklet detailing instructions for every part of the process that Robert personally drafted. He clearly spelled out the process and added value that I had been missing.
2) How long did it take to learn how to make a good wine?
It took me several years. My 2007 Cabernet Franc won third place in WineMaker Magazine’s wine making competition. Each year since then at least one of my vintages was decent or at least very drinkable. I seemed to have better luck making good wine from Merlot grapes from Napa Valley. They say it’s all about the grape, and I totally believe it. I’ve also been making good wine with Malbec grapes from Central Valley of California. I’ve never been able to make good, drinkable white wine. I have better luck with reds.
3) What are the best and worst parts of making your own wine? 

The best part of making wine is when I’m several months into the process racking the wine for the first or second time. When I transfer the wine from one carboy to another (removing sediment that collects at the bottom of the carboy), the room develops a sweet and delicious aroma from the juice that’s been aging. I will often taste the wine during the racking process to get a glimpse into what the wine may become. That wonderful aroma gives me the motivation to be patient and look forward to bottling and eventually sharing with friends and family. I often mimic the professional winemaker's experience--the same down to earth reality check.
The worst has to be when I think I’ve done it all just right, and the wine turns out bad. In several batches of red wine, hydrogen sulfide or rotten egg odor was detected. The cause of which can be several different things. It’s hard to reverse depending upon when you detect it. It may taste just fine, but it’s hard to share with others. I’ve come to find that the amateur wine making community is very supportive. I received a number of recommendations on how to fix this condition through a LinkedIn group for wine making.
4) What do you get out of making wine? 

Wine making for me is like creating art. While there’s a science to it all that I love, it’s also the individual contribution that I can impart upon the process which I enjoy. Ultimately it’s a fun hobby that can cost less money, but my wife may not always think so! I also enjoy giving the wine away to my friends and family. I love the look on their face when they bring me empty bottles back for more!

5) What have been the biggest challenges?

In the fall of 2011, I purchased the largest amount of wine grapes I ever had to up to that point. In addition, when I was done crushing, I had eight different types of grape varieties from several different regional locations aging in my basement. Juice from Chile and California, grapes from California, Washington and Oregon. It got complicated and very time consuming. You also can’t always predict when the grapes will be ready. This year they were picked a bit earlier than expected and needed to be picked up from the distributor. For almost a whole month each weekend, I was crushing, pressing and cleaning my garage which conflicted with several of my personal/family commitments. Several nights I recall working past midnight getting stuff done. Next time, I don’t plan to be so aggressive. I feel as though I lost some of the joy and quality as a result.

6) What is the next step for you?

I’m planning to attend the Winemaker’s Wine Conference in June 2012 located this year in the Finger Lakes region of New York State (Cornell University, Ithaca, NY). Besides some great wine making courses and networking opportunities, I hope to learn more about applying science in my wine making process through a one-day boot camp on wine testing the day before the conference. I’m really excited.

I’ll continue to make up to 30-40 gallons of wine each year, but focusing on only a few varietals.

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